A Different Fight: former UA running back tackles MMA

Noah Pittenger was a high school standout as a running back at Brophy in Phoenix. But after one year at Arizona, Pittenger found his new calling: jiu jitsu. Sports editor Alec White takes a look at Pittenger’s newest challenge.

The gym inside of 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu is filled with all different walks of life: professional fighters looking to stay sharp between matches, average joes looking to pick up a new hobby and children being introduced to the sport. Among the group is a University of Arizona student trading his life on the gridiron for a life on the mat.

Noah Pittenger was a preferred walk-on on the 2017 Arizona football team who went 7-6 in the final season of the Rich Rodriguez era. A pre-physiology major, Pittenger played the sport since he was a kid, becoming an all-state running back at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix as a senior. Eventually, he felt it might be time for a change of pace from the sport he had known his whole life.

“After you do something for so long, it kinda gets repetitive,” Pittenger said. “I had always been interested in martial arts and fighting, and this was kind of the first thing I wanted to do after I left the game.”

Noah Pittenger grappling with a partner in his jiu jitsu studio on Mar. 28 in Tucson, Ariz.

Pittenger called the gym and was connected with Mercedes White, who owns and operates 10th Planet with her husband, professional MMA fighter Anthony Birchak. White recommended jiu jitsu, which is a Brazilian form of martial arts that focuses on grappling and ground fighting, as a way to quench his thirst to still be a competitive athlete away from football. White said Pittenger started to pick the sport up quickly.

“At first, he was only able to come to mat training, where we don’t have as much structure,” White said. “I saw him picking up little things just from trial by fire and getting right into the mix. He expressed his frustration of getting stuck in positions and not knowing certain things where his athleticism was enough to get him past new guys but not with more experienced grapplers. I told him the fact he’s learned as much as he had was amazing and a sign of a very intellectual athlete.”

White currently has a stable of around ten fighters under her fight team ToroTech MMA, with three of them being professionals. “The rest are up-and-coming amateurs looking to continue their rise to the pro level,” she said. 

Pittenger has been doing the sport for about five months now and says the similarities between MMA and football are more from the mental side than the physical one.

Noah Pittenger during a sparring session on Mar. 28 at 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu in Tucson, Ariz.

“It’s similar, from an attitude perspective,” Pittenger said. “You’re always trying to learn and get better, and when people start off in any new sport, you’re always going to have a learning curve. Every day when I come in, I try to bring the same attitude as I had on the field on the mats.”

One of the biggest challenges in transitioning sports, besides not having any background in jiu jitsu, was affording a gym membership on a student budget. Pittenger’s family was unwilling to finance a future in the sport, leaving him in a bind financially while he works towards his degree. 

“I have a program I do with young, hungry, ambitious athletes who want to train but can’t afford it,” White said. “All they have to do is clean the gym, which includes our normal regiment of sweeping and mopping mats, trash detail and cleaning the bathroom. Noah has never once complained or said he was too busy. It shows me he is truly invested in this sport and our team. There’s not many people that stick with the program for a free membership, so for someone like Noah who comes from good means to be able to show me that’s not beneath him speaks to his character as a man.”

In his few months of training, Pittenger said the best part of the whole experience hasn’t been technique-based, but actually learning patience on the mat.

Noah Pittenger sparring with his partner during training on Mar. 28 in Tucson, Ariz. Pittenger’s class is lead by mixed martial artist Anthony Birchak, who’s fought for UFC, Bellator, and MFC.

“You gotta wait for moves to open up,” Pittenger said. “Sometimes you learn to push the pace, and other times you learn to sit back and relax. You have to know when the right time for that is.”

Pittenger said the sport is definitely something he can see himself doing down the road, but there is a lot of work to be done. He competed for the first time last month, finishing first in his weight division and third overall.

“I lost by making a small mistake learning how to position your body, staying balanced,” Pittenger said. “I feel I’ve always been motivated to be good at whatever it is I do. Just like in football, working hard to try and hone my skills. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”

White feels that for Pittenger, the sky is the limit.

“I would no doubt expect someone of his athletic level, good heart and character to get his black belt in jiu jitsu and win a lot of gold medals along the way,” White said. “It’s just a time thing for when he’s finally a master at this craft.”

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